Tech CEO to workforce: Shut up, get back to work, and ignore those annoying critics

Another take on the Basecamp debacle: an apparent backlash to the so-called “techlash”

Software company Basecamp created a self-made controversy when co-Founder and CEO Jason Fried published a “Changes at Basecamp” memo on April 26, declaring “no more societal or political discussions” at work, “no more paternalistic benefits”, “no more committees” and other “no more” decrees.

While the company received an onslaught of criticism mixed with some applause for basically telling their employees to shut up and get back to work — and over a third of its 57 employees resigned — another change that has received far less public criticism and at first glance may not seem so egregious but really pushed my buttons was titled “No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions.” It reads:

“We’ve become a bit too precious with decision making over the last few years. Either by wallowing in indecisiveness, worrying ourselves into overthinking things, taking on a defensive posture and assuming the worst outcome is the likely outcome, putting too much energy into something that only needed a quick fix, inadvertently derailing projects when casual suggestions are taken as essential imperatives, or rehashing decisions in different forums or mediums. It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.”

I do not know which decisions the paragraph refers to, but I do know it reeks of an arrogance born, in part, of an environment that has long convinced the tech industry that they are smarter and more important than the rest of us and should not be bogged down with such “precious” ideas as responsibility, accountability, or duty of care.

Do I think Basecamp has the potential to cause societal harm in the way a company like my former employer Facebook has? No. But a tech CEO deciding to use his public platform, where he will undoubtedly influence other tech companies’ thinking, to make a public statement like this is not just negligent, it is downright dangerous. Having it then amplified with a tweet from Coinbase’s Brian Armstrong — with over a half million followers — as a courageous decision and asking who will be next makes it even worse. It sends the signal that tech companies are tired of the critics, tired of those pesky outside voices, tired of being pressured to worry about potential unintended consequences of their products and want to return to their core culture: move fast, break things, deal with the consequences later, and most importantly, don’t worry about having to answer for mistakes, no matter how they may affect society.

I know this culture all too well from my time at Facebook, where I was hired to do exactly what Fried seems to be saying will no longer be allowed at Basecamp: think critically about how to ensure bad actors do not use the platform with malicious intent. One of the many reasons I did not even last six months at Facebook was that I wanted to dissect the problem and then ensure that the company not only built programs and tools to protect users and — in the case of my particular role and entire life’s work, democracy — but that we do so after thinking through the myriad potential consequences, good and bad, of what we were about to throw out into the world. Yes, this means slowing down; this means asking tough questions; this means “assuming the worst outcomes” and building with those in mind.

In fact, one of the only criticisms of my actual work from my Facebook manager was that I was “too slow” to respond to emails. This was in regards to a question that would require an operational decision that had the potential to affect another country’s election, and I wanted to ensure I checked with everyone working the issue before giving an opinion. (Mind you, I responded the same day, just not within 5 minutes.) This is why Fried’s statement that “It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on” rings so familiar, and in my opinion is one of the truly dangerous attitudes in parts of tech culture.

This is what I was trained to do as a CIA analyst: look around corners, anticipate the worst, identify signposts that would help evaluate over time if the worst is coming, constantly re-evaluate and be willing to update my analysis and recommendations as realities change on the ground. This is what those of us in the “risk” or “protection” space do, and yes, it builds unwanted friction into a system where speed and scale are often viewed as more important than the consequences.

As I interpret Fried’s post, he seems to be tired of having to think about any of this. He seems to be annoyed that the public has begun paying attention to how tech companies affect everyone’s lives, about questions being asked, about calls for more scrutiny, about the public wanting the tech industry to live by the same set of standards as the rest of the country. It reads as a backlash to the so-called “techlash”.

It is tempting to say that Basecamp isn’t Facebook and should not have to suffer the downstream effects of public anger at that company. I agree, to a point. And I certainly don’t put all tech companies into the same bucket and in fact work with a number that I admire. But after reading Basecamp employee Jane Yang’s “open letter to Jason and David” and her description of the so-called “Moral Quandaries” cases she worked on, I feel far less forgiving.

I have spent enough time in the tech industry to understand that culture is one of the key areas not explored deeply enough when trying to re-align technology with greater societal issues. Culture determines how a company will handle difficult moments, how they will hold themselves accountable for their mistakes, and how they will react to this pivotal moment in our country’s social history. Retreating to the “we just build stuff” and “we’re not the problem”, head-in-the-sand mentality while actively discouraging employees’ efforts to build safer practices (again, Jane Yang’s letter) perpetuates a culture and environment where tech companies insulate themselves from outside criticism and continue building sometimes-harmful products under the guise of “we’re not responsible for how bad people engage with our product.”

I have written before on the tension between the “move fast” tech culture and the “slow down” mentality of those in the risk space. As I wrote in my piece The Tech Giants’ Cultures Are Incompatible With Fixing the Societal Problems They’re Causing: “Scalability, quantifiable impact on growth, speed and competitive edge are what define success in a company like Facebook. The employees who meet these metrics…are revenue generators, and as such they occupy the top tiers of both financial reward and decision-making power. This encourages a culture where tech problems can only be solved by more tech. The roles that people like me fill in trust, safety, risk assessment and harm mitigation are… generally second tier in companies’ power structures…We’re the ones asking the company to slow down, challenging assumptions, analyzing multiple potential scenarios… that is just not what most of today’s fast-paced tech companies, or the investors who back them, value.”

I know this culture will not change overnight, and there will always be people who find those of us who say things like “but have you considered how that might affect….” simply a nuisance. But to see tech CEOs openly scold their employees for trying to have a more balanced approach, after all the public conversation about tech and society in recent years, is simply astonishing and, to say the least, hugely disappointing.

Tackling the intersection of tech, policy & society. Fighting for democracy. Future of Democracy Fellow at Berggruen Institute. More at www.yaeleisenstat.com